Storytelling for presentations | How to tell an engrossing story | Buffalo 7

How to tell a story through your presentation

Damsels & dragons: How to tell an engrossing story one slide at a time

Storytelling for presentations. No matter the medium, a compelling narrative will leave us thirsting for more.

What have fairytales got to do with presentations? A lot more than you’d think…

“Once upon a time, there lived a fair maiden who was the kindest and comeliest damsel in the land. The young woman was not only beautiful but smart. Shrewdly, the maiden rebuffed the many suitors who came seeking her hand in marriage. She was not averse to wedlock – it was merely the wedding day that terrified her. Weddings meant crowds and crowds meant speeches and if there was one thing the maiden hated, it was public speaking.”


Humans are hardwired for stories. Ever since we first harnessed fire, we’ve learned to harness the power of storytelling. Whether it’s a spooky campfire tale, a Harry Potter novel or a Hollywood blockbuster, a compelling narrative will reel us in and leave us thirsting for more. The medium might change – storybook or scroll; Kindle or projector – but the methodology remains the same.

When it comes to delivering a presentation, does storytelling play a role? You bet it does. Think about the elements that constitute a successful story:

  • An introduction setting the scene
  • A primary character
  • A plot or theme
  • Conflict that must be overcome
  • A conclusion

Does that not sound awfully like a presentation?

  • An introduction. Yep
  • A primary character. That’ll be you then
  • A plot or theme. ‘How to Market Your Mobile App’
  • Competition from rival apps
  • A conclusion. Absolutely

Admittedly, not every presentation will follow the arc of a conventional story, but the basic elements almost certainly will. If you can tell a cracking tale down the pub, odds are you can do the same when you’re stood in front of a projector with pointer instead of pint in hand. To deliver an engrossing story, one slide at a time, all you have to do is follow a few basic tenets.*

“What shall I do?” asked the anguished maiden pacing her balcony. The damsel blanched when speaking to her own family – what hope did she have of addressing a large crowd? Overhearing her entreaties, her maidservant piped up: “Rumour has it there is a dragon in a faraway mountain that has the power to cure shyness… but the road is long and treacherous and the beast’s temperament is as fiery as its breath.”

“Dragons don’t scare me,” insisted the maiden, “only people.” And thus, packing her things, she set off the very next morning.

Make it personal

Products don’t sell products – people sell products. Your presentation needs a human element if it’s to resonate. You might have invented the greatest bread since sliced bread, but what’s more likely to strike a chord with your audience: listing its proprietary blend of ingredients or describing how the inspiration came to you while choking on a dry roll at a Medieval supper club? Facts and figures belong in your presentation, but so do stories of your triumphs, failures and – at the risk of entering X-Factor territory – your journey.*

For 12 days and nights, the maiden journeyed through enchanted woods and foreboding valleys. Finally, she came to the foot of a great mountain. At its top was a cave and inside it the largest dragon she had ever seen. “Excuse me,” she began, “but I have been told you hold the secret to public speaking and I wondered if you might share it.” The dragon rolled onto its back and laughed until smoke billowed out its nose. “Very well,” said the dragon when it had regained its composure. “I will tell you the secret, but you’ll have to trust me. Here, leap onto my back!” The maiden did as she was told and with a swoosh of its wings, the dragon lurched into the air and they soared high across the valley.

Identify the conflict

If you’re speaking to a room full of people, odds are you’re there to solve a problem:

  • Staff are dissatisfied with their current catering company
  • Students don’t understand the difference between UI and UX
  • Middle management have been instructed to become better motivators

Like any good story, your conflict might have a complication attached:

  • The catering contract is locked in for another year
  • Even qualified designers struggle to differentiate between UI/UX
  • Middle management don’t like being told what to do

You’ve got your problem. Now it’s up to you, the protagonist and hero of the hour, to solve it.

As the maiden clung on for dear life, the flying beast began to talk. “The secret to public speaking? Why, it’s simple – you pretend you’re a fire-breathing dragon that commands respect from everyone in the room. When dragons speak, people sit up and listen.”

“That’s easy for you to say!” scoffed the maiden. “You’re a dragon!”

“Really?” smirked the creature. With a puff of smoke, the dragon disappeared and in its place appeared a tiny, timorous mouse. The maiden gasped as she felt herself plunging earthwards. The trees and valleys lurched towards her and then everything went black.

Finish with a transformation

Most stories involve the main character undergoing a transformation of some sort. They’ve faced conflict head on, overcome the complications thrust in their way and now, at the climax of the tale, their transformation is complete. In South Park, this used to be marked by Kyle’s utterance “I’ve learned something today…”

Kyle from South Park GIF

What have your audience learned from you? What transformative message have you taught them? Your final slide might be a summary of your presentation – one that neatly ties all the loose ends together and leaves them with a clear take-home message. Learn from my journey. Heed this lesson. Listen to fire-breathing dragons. It’s your tale and you’re the one calling the shots. Engross your audience and you’re free to lead them wherever you like. When it comes to storytelling for your presentation, the only limits are your imagination.

“Are you okay, dearest?” asked the maidservant. “You were thrashing ever so violently in your sleep.”

“Why yes, I’m fine,” said the maiden, rubbing her eyes. “But I had the strangest dream. Do me a favour, will you? Assemble all the courtiers in the dining room. There’s a story I have to share with them. Oh, and send all those pesky suitors on their way. She smirked. “This strong independent dragon don’t need no man.”

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